Hundreds of Westminster seats effectively ‘reserved by men', says ERS

By agency reporter
February 14, 2018

Gender equality in Parliament is being held back by Westminster’s voting system, with hundreds of seats effectively ‘reserved’ by incumbent men, according to new research by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).

The figures show that although there is near gender parity among current MPs first elected in 2015 (45 per cent are women), 170 seats are being held by men first elected in 2005 or before – with few opportunities for women to take those seats or selections.

Campaigners are warning that without change of the system, further progress will be extremely slow.

The problem stems from the fact that long-held seats were first elected in much more unequal times. But the MPs can hold on to their seats due to the one-member, closed-off nature of First Past the Post constituencies, as well the incumbency effect in Britain’s many ‘safe seats’.

Key findings:

  • Of the 212 currently-serving MPs first elected in 2005 or before, just 42 (20 per cent) are women
  • Of 44 current MPs first elected in 1992 or before, only eight of them – 18 per cent – are women

Yet the current levels of women’s representation rely on the much better performance by parties in recent elections – especially the last two:

  • Of the MPs remaining who were first elected in 2015, there is near gender parity – 45 per cent are women
  • 37 per cent of MPs first elected in 2017 are women – much further from parity, but still far better than the rate for the ‘old-timers’

However, the dominance of men in long-held seats acts as a ‘major barrier’ to further progress, according to the ERS.

The ERS say the one-member-per-seat nature of First Past the Post exaggerates these problems, with Westminster’s system ‘the worst in the world’ when it comes to gender equality.

The campaigners calling for multi-member seats under a proportional voting system to be introduced, to ensure all seats are properly contested, including by women.

Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society, said: “While we’ve seen progress on women’s representation in recent elections, gender equality is being held back by Westminster’s broken voting system, which effectively ‘reserves’ seats for men.

“Over 80 per cent of MPs first elected in 1997 or earlier are men, with the one-MP per seat one-person-takes-all nature of First Past the Post leaving few opportunities for women’s representation once a man has secured selection. Sitting MPs have a huge incumbency advantage, and since open selections are relatively rare, we face a real stumbling block in the path to fair representation.

“Parties have made significant strides, with near gender parity among current MPs first elected in 2015. But without change of the system, further progress will be extremely slow.

“Westminster’s single-member seat system is widely regarded as the world’s worst when it comes to achieving gender balance. Proportional multi-member systems – used in democracies around the world – mean there are always real opportunities for improving women’s representation.

“As parties evaluate their progress towards equal representation, they must consider a proportional voting system that puts real democracy and dynamism at the heart of our politics.”

The cause of seat blocking 

Deselection of sitting MPs by constituency parties is relatively rare, which means a large proportion of Parliament is made up of men who have been there for decades. Moreover, the longer an MP holds his/her seat, the less likely a challenge seems.

This, and the prevalence of ‘safe seats’ under Westminster’s voting system, means that once a seat is in an MP’s hands, it may be theirs for decades.

While parties have made strides in recent elections, progress is being held back by the fact that 80 per cent of MPs first elected in 2005 or before are men – with little hope of diversity or space for new candidates unless they stand down.

Removing the barriers

Recent elections have seen parties redouble their efforts to select women in winnable seats. This has led to major progress in terms of new batches of MPs – as noted, there is near gender parity among current MPs who were first elected in 2015.

Therefore, calling for parties to do more with the handle of open seats will only produce modest gains from now on. Parties need to look more closely at the large number of seats which are effectively ‘reserved’ by incumbent men.

Multi-member seats and proportional voting systems ensure all elections are open to real competition – including when it comes to gender. First Past the Post (FPTP) is the ‘world’s worst system’ for achieving gender balance, say the campaigners.

Jess Garland continued: “As parties evaluate their progress towards equal representation, they should make an honest assessment of the implications of continued use of FPTP for achieving equality.

“To get the best Parliament possible – to stir it up, to introduce new perspectives and to add some much-needed dynamism in a chamber ripe for reform – we need a proportional voting system that puts real democracy and dynamism at the heart of our politics.”

* Electoral Reform Society https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

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